I’ve talked to winners all year. They’ve been happy, thrilled, overjoyed, amazed, shocked, humbled, awed. But those attitudes are all battling for second place behind the conversation I had with Jose Villegas last week.
The Laurel Park-based exercise rider flashed an optimism, a humility and a grace in as trying a situation as anyone will ever face. A horse Villegas was riding broke down and fell while training at Laurel Park in September, sending the 43-year-old hard to the dirt. Villegas has fallen before, bounced up and walked away like so many before him. Not this time. The native of Mexico may never walk again, a spinal injury leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
The world would forgive Villegas some disappointment, a little sadness, even some “Why me?” woe, anger or depression.
Not even close.
“I’m doing OK,” he said after answering his mobile phone on the second ring. “I’m in a wheelchair, but I’m doing pretty good. I’m still here and I just have to find a different way to live. But I’m going to go for it. I’m going to get stronger and stronger every day. I’ve got strong arms, strong shoulders.”
He’s got a strong mind, too.
A groom with trainer Dickie Small in the mid-1990s, Villegas started riding horses bareback around the barn and worked his way up to galloping stalwarts such as Concern and Include for Small. Turns out, the kid was a natural – taking what he learned from Small, then jockey Andrea Seefeldt and others and fashioning a career and a life. When he started, he didn’t know the poles (quarter, eighth, sixteenth, etc.). He went on to gallop for years, and even rode a few races – winning eight of 137 mounts in 1996, 2001 and 2002.
“I got spoiled because there were so many good horses in the barn,” Villegas said. “There are no tough ones with Dickie. He wants to see them galloping along so you didn’t have to slow them down too much. Concern was good, pretty easy to gallop. He would try every time we ran him. He had a real big heart.”
Villegas’ favorite was Broad Smile, who started 27 times – 10 wins, 10 seconds, six thirds. She earned a little more than $400,000.
“She was a great horse, my favorite to be around,” said the man who rode her in the morning. More than 17 years after Broad Smile ran her last race, Villegas was still riding horses at Laurel. Small’s operation has cut back in numbers, so the rider moved to Mike Trombetta’s barn after recovering from an elbow injury this summer. Four months into his time there, Villegas fell.
“It’s just a shame,” he said, feeling bad for the horse. “There was nothing wrong. I was breezing him a half-mile with another horse and all the sudden he just dropped. When I hit the ground I knew I was in trouble. And that was pretty much it.”
Villegas wound up at the University of Maryland Rehabilitation and Orthopedic Institute (formerly Kernan Hospital). He’s since been released and was starting therapy at home, a home he was about to purchase from his longtime landlord Small until the accident. Settlement was two weeks away. Now it’s on hold. Villegas will depend on worker’s compensation payments, rather than his full salary, but still intends to buy the house with a little help from the generous horse people of Maryland and beyond. Donations to two assistance funds, a fundraiser/silent auction and two benefit handicapping contests have raised roughly $40,000 for Villegas. Buying the house, or at least increasing the down payment, is the goal.
The father of three is overwhelmed at the support.
“You don’t know how many friends you have until something happens, and I have a lot of friends,” Villegas said. “It means a lot to have people look out for me and I’m just so happy about all of that. This is the kind of thing people in racing do. It’s pretty nice. I’m lucky.”
In Mexico, Villegas rode horses – not racehorses – and inherited an attachment to them from both grandfathers. He holds no grudges, no negative opinions.
“I like everything about horses,” he said. “They’re good animals, they’re nice. It’s just fun to be with horses. I don’t think I’m going to be able to ride them anymore. Not yet, maybe if I get a miracle I will get back on one.”
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Jose Villegas gallops a horse on the track.
Jose Villegas (right) with a winner.
Jose Villegas remains positive and upbeat despite his accident.
Photos courtesy of Bobby Lillis and Ami Villegas.